Fault lines in the judiciaryA month ago, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) condemned Sung Chang-ho, a senior judge on the Seoul Central District Court, for delivering what it claimed a “vengeful ruling” on South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo, a confidant of President Moon Jae-in, for colluding in an online opinion manipulation scheme. The party devoted a press conference to poring over the lengthy ruling and hosted a street rally in defiance of the verdict, a rare spectacle of the ruling party publicly criticizing the judiciary and a specific judge.
The controversy built up to political strife with the rival Liberty Korea Party (LKP) when Sung’s name was included on a list of 10 retired and sitting judges the Seoul Central Prosecutor’s Office indicted on Tuesday on charges of power abuse under the orders of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae. Sung was accused of leaking confidential information about a bribery scandal in 2016. But the LKP suspected the ruling party of wielding influence over the prosecution to punish Sung for his ruling on Kim Kyoung-soo, whom the DP considers one of its potential presidential candidates.
Moreover, the prosecution included Cha Moon-ho, who is the head judge in Kim’s appeals case, on the list of names of witnesses to call to testify in the case of judicial power abuse. Cha claims he did no wrong except for advising his cousin, also a judge active in a progressive body in the judiciary, against his outspokenness on the idea of forming a separate top court. Including someone who has not violated any statutes to testify in court can be a form of pressure on the judge responsible for Kim’s second trial. The ruling party accuses both Sung and Cha of being part of Yang’s group on the grounds that they worked in the court administrative office under the former chief justice. Moreover a judge on Kim’s appeals case was replaced by Kim Min-ki, who used to be active in the progressive group called the Society for Research on Our Law, raising questions about fairness in the second trial.
The liberals have been lambasting a judge for approving bail for former President Lee Myung-bak. Photos of Judge Jeong Jun-yeong of the high court have been posted on social media with slanderous comments.
The people can hardly be expected to have faith in court rulings when politics intervenes. Judges have become fearful of taking up controversial rulings. The judiciary is the last defense of democracy. The legislature must stop rocking the judiciary and undermining a key pillar of democracy, which is the separation of powers.
JoongAng Sunday, March 9, Page 30